By: Yossi Prager
The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty seeks to protect the freedom of religion for people of all faiths. In the past, AVI CHAI funded the Becket Fund to support a fellow to work on cases that would benefit Jewish day schools and other parochial schools. The following is an invocation given by Yossi Prager at the Becket Fund Dinner on May 7, 2015.
Thank you very much for inviting me to participate in the program tonight.
I’d like to share a Mishnah from Pirkei Avot, an early rabbinic source dating back to the second or third century of the Common Era:
“Rabbi Shimon ben Gamliel says: The world is maintained by three things: legal judgments, truth and peace.”
This triad is unusual; Big Bird might say, “one of these is not like the others.” Truth and peace are eternal, profound values to strive and pray for, while courts are a process for keeping order in society.
When Shakespeare wrote: “First thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers,” he clearly did not see legal judgments as on par with truth and peace. What did Rabbi Shimon ben Gamliel have in mind?
I’d like to interpret this Mishnah using an idea suggested by Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, the leading Orthodox Jewish thinker of the 20th Century. He noted that truth and peace in their absolute forms are in perpetual conflict; they cannot both be realized at the same time. Imagine two people disputing over property or principle: each sees his own view or claim as the absolute truth, a situation that negates the possibility of compromise. Compromise becomes possible only when one or both sides agree to limit or confine their truth in some way. You can have absolute truth or absolute peace but not both.
One of Judaism’s great contributions to civilization is the recognition that moral questions often involve competing goods, competing evils or competing truths. Take, for example, the only teacher in a small town whose livelihood comes from a one room schoolhouse. Another teacher moves in seeking students. The first teacher believes that the interloper has no right to steal his livelihood, while the new teacher promises better education. Both truths can be defended. Which is the morally preferred outcome? Jewish law, particularly civil law that decides interpersonal conflict, provides the Jewish moral answers to competing claims, in this case in favor of the new teacher. It’s not simply that Jewish courts keep the peace by providing a forum for resolving disputes. Jewish law provides a substantive moral response to competing truths. In Judaism, law is a source of moral instruction.
In America, secular law cannot make the claim to divine origin or sacred decisions. However, the American legal system does serve the same role of resolving the tensions between truth and peace. The tensions are even greater in American society because of deep disagreements about basic questions such as is there a God, if there is what does He want from us, and what the role of religion should be in public life.
Americans value both truth and peace, and we rely on our legal system to resolve the tension between them, navigating the path to freedom of religion without the imposition of religion. And the Becket Fund has taken on the challenge protecting religious liberty across America with passionate and sophisticated advocacy. In that sense, in the words of Rabbi Shimon ben Gamliel, the Becket Fund is a force sustaining the world.
May God shower His blessings over the professionals and supporters of the Becket Fund, and over all of us dedicating our lives to truth, peace and law.
Yossi Prager is Executive Director – North America for The AVI CHAI Foundation
AVI CHAI concluded its general grant making on December 31, 2019.
Truth and Peace: Values in Tension
Posted by: Michael Trapunsky
May 13, 2015
By: Yossi Prager